God keeps his promises

Here’s one to cling to in an age of tyrants, beheadings and other nauseating defilements of the divine image, at a time when the blood of a family of eight can be dashed against their open Bible because their deepest loyalty was upward-bound:

Just as the weeds are collected and burned up with fire, so will it be at the end of the age. The Son of Man will send his angels, and they will collect out of his kingdom all causes of sin and all evildoers, and they will throw them into the furnace of fire, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. Then the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father. Let anyone with ears listen!

— Matthew 13:40–43 NRSV

Ye olde homiletical garden

IMG_4286My approach to preparing a sermon has been that I must never assume I will ever get to preach again. That’s a bit of a cop-out, though. It ignores the fact that we must always seek to improve, and that also means accepting that this next time mustn’t be our last or best attempt at faithfully digging out first century questions and bravely essaying twenty-first century answers.

In any case, thinking in such a linear fashion — this time, next time, the time after that — won’t be too helpful if you don’t have the luxury of being a full-time student and your deadlines are as fixed as the passage of days.

All that preamble is to preface this bit of ‘preaching lore’ I came across — hope it helps my fellow hatchlings:

How Much Advance Planning Should We Do for Our Sermons?

Preachers vary widely in their planning habits. Some preachers have well-organised minds, and with the aid of a calendar and a lectionary they plan their preaching months in advance. A few even take a week or so of study leave to sketch out a general preaching scheme for the coming year. Most of us are less disciplined, beginning the next sermon only after the present one has been delivered.

The best wisdom is that every preacher can be actively at work on five or six sermons at once. A good method is to create separate file folders for, say, the next half-dozen sermons. The biblical texts should be chosen and enough of the exegetical work done on these texts to know the general direction of each of the sermons. The preacher can then browse through these files periodically to keep the upcoming sermon themes in mind. Clippings from the newspaper, quotes from novels, pastoral experiences, and other ideas can then be placed into the files so that, when the time comes to create a sermon, its folder will already contain some working material. As soon as a sermon is complete, a new file is made to take its place at the end of the line. Older homileticians called this method a “homiletical garden”. The big task is in setting up the system, since exegetical work on several sermons is required. Once the garden is planted, however, it can be tilled and cultivated as a matter of routine.

— The Witness of Preaching (2nd ed.) by Thomas G. Long (Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press, 2005), pp. 234–235.

Can you eat your way home again?

the lunchbox of lurve89. The Lunchbox (2013) — Well, Irrfan Khan has cemented his place as one of my favourite actors ever, and not only in the Bollywood sphere. (You simply must check him out in Darjeeling Limited, by the way. And the movie itself is certainly worth your time!) Hats off to Nawazuddin Siddiqui and Nimrat Kaur too. Bravo and brava! It is exciting to think there are actors of such calibre to look out for.

This is a slow, arthousey movie compared to the likes of the usual Bollywood fare (that being said, there’s an Unseen Auntie who’s way more entertaining than any Item Boy/Girl), complete with an enigmatic ending, so you might feel a wee bit lost with the relative realism and the pensive pacing. I didn’t quite get the classic romantic comedy I’d hoped for, but what could I have hoped for, with a married woman and a retiring widower? But the time doth passes amiably, and oh, the characters, they do worm their way into your affections with how pluckily they manage their lives of quiet desperation.

Yes, how does one manage a life of quiet desperation? In two ways, according to The Lunchbox. First, through sheer good humour — I’ve never had a laugh gurgle up from so deep within; I practically had to force myself to stop laughing beyond *that* scene by the street between Saajan and Shaikh. No smug slapstick in this film, only vintage dry humour — I have discovered that I like drollness very much indeed. The second way of managing is through sheer good food, specifically home cooking — the scenes of preparing and savouring cannot fail to inspire, even if it were just to slap together something simple for someone you love.

And maybe a third way of managing would be to take the time to relish good movies with good friends — thank you, dear Sayesha, for dragging me out for this, and a Mad Maharani for reminding me about it.

Raising righteousness

A man is born into this world with only a tiny spark of goodness in him. The spark is God, it is the soul; the rest is ugliness and evil, a shell. The spark must be guarded like a treasure, it must be nurtured, it must be fanned into flame. It must learn to seek out other sparks, it must dominate the shell. Anything can be a shell, Reuven. Anything. Indifference, laziness, brutality, and genius. Yes, even a great mind can be a shell and choke the spark. …

I went away and cried to the Master of the Universe, ‘What have you done to me? A mind like this I need for a son? A heart I need for a son, a soul I need for a son, compassion I want from my son, righteousness, mercy, strength to suffer and carry pain, that I want from my son, not a mind without a soul!’ …

One learns of the pain of others by suffering one’s own pain, he would say, by turning inside oneself, by finding one’s own soul. And it is important to know of pain, he said. It destroys our self-pride, our arrogance, our indifference towards others. It makes us aware of how frail and tiny we are and of how much we must depend upon the Master of the Universe.

From The Chosen by Chaim Potok (New York: Ballantine, 1967)

One reason I love this book so much is this final scene about the heart of a father for his son. I felt as though I’d caught a glimpse of God’s heart for us, and I was greatly moved — that a father’s plans and purposes for his child would centre on the condition of his soul; that our Father God could be actively seeking the good of our souls. How futile it seems, then, to be anxious about how high you fly or how low you go, when the true and final assessment is not about such success or failure; when you have a God who cares about you, genuinely cares, and beckons you to a hope and a future.

Seven days till graduation

And a hundred and twenty days since my last post!

Since then, my final semester for my Master of Divinity has more or less ended, a goodly number of fears and hopes have been fulfilled and abandoned, and I’ve stopped shoehorning sets of threes into my sentences (oops).

Last night was the graduation dinner for the School of Theology (English), and it was a good night, thanks to the many hands lent. The graduands were asked to share a photo and a few words on how that photo expressed a memory, a thanksgiving or a testimony they have from their time in SBC. I didn’t manage to send mine in time, so here it is for posterity:


Now as to why — on my first day in school (which was literally the first time I’d stepped foot there), there wasn’t a single soul I knew. I found myself looking for a table during tea break, while talking to God (naturally, in such a situation?!): “You’ll take care of me just like you took care of me in Hong Kong, right? You’ll send me friends, won’t you? Friends who will be true.”

Well, the next thing I heard was loud (OK, roisterous) laughter coming from the table I was approaching, one with a chair or two empty. And the peals of joy were rolling from none other than SChng. (I remember JChen and DHeo at the table too, along wth JWoo.) She did indeed become a friend, true and honest even when I fail to be. She, and sweet, concentric circles of others. (I and you know who y’all are.)

(On the same day, I also discovered that a dear old secondary schoolmate had graduated from the same course recently — so thankful to the prayers and advice of ECheong. For example, “The class that prays together, graduates together.” A truth that cannot be overstated!)

Eh, so why this photo, again? Well, this egg tart and baked char siew bun represent the typical (OK, eternal) snacks served during tea breaks in SBC. (Sorry, not so eco-friendly are we, with the plastic fork …) Whenever I have this sweet-and-savoury combo in the canteen, I am reminded of God’s faithfulness in not bringing me to a place without his presence, showing that he is with me always by being incarnate through his children who bear his image and do his will (that is, heap burning coals on my head by being ever so kind when I am silly).

His children, my friends, with whom I have learnt to suffer with and depend upon, even as they have had to tolerate and trust me. His children, who love me and pray for me, in SBC and beyond.

I am so thankful to you, Lord, and to them. Amen.

The eye that blinks

Reuven, do you know what the rabbis tell us God said to Moses when he was about to die? … He said to Moses, ‘You have toiled and laboured, now you are worthy of rest.’ …

Human beings do not live forever, Reuven. We live less than the time it takes to blink an eye, if we measure our lives against eternity. So it may be asked what value is there to a human life. There is so much pain in the world. What does it mean to have to suffer so much if our lives are nothing more than the blink of an eye? …

I learned a long time ago, Reuven, that a blink of an eye in itself is nothing. But the eye that blinks, that is something. A span of life is nothing. But the man who lives that span, he is something. He can fill that tiny span with meaning, so its quality is immeasurable though its quantity may be insignificant. Do you understand what I am saying? A man must fill his life with meaning, meaning is not automatically given to life. It is hard work to fill one’s life with meaning. That I do not think you understand yet. A life filled with meaning is worthy of rest. I want to be worthy of rest when I am no longer here. Do you understand what I am saying?

From The Chosen by Chaim Potok (New York: Ballantine, 1967)

When I want to go wide or deep in study, it takes work. When I want to be faithful to the songs I sing in worship, it takes work. When I want to be a good friend or daughter or steward of self, it takes work.

But I find that I like the path of least resistance, the easy way out, to be at the kind of rest where I’m shirking work. Yet I don’t fancy the arrogance of wasting my life on the trivial or the pointlessness of merely money as gain. I’m not keen on striving based on someone else’s ideals or presuming to take the credit when it is really (always, always, always) God at work.

Then where does that leave me? Exactly where I am today, coming to my last semester in seminary. But I’m still as ever wrestling with the rigours it takes to do good work, the kind that deserves its rest. I realise I am immensely privileged even to think on these things.

So it looks like I’m going to have to grow wise and/or wild in the days ahead to keep pushing past my fear of boredom, my instinct for more putrid forms of entertainment, my pleasure in mindlessness. To surrender body, mind and spirit, to passion, purpose and purity.

I expressly don’t know what’s ahead. My heart is still racing to believe (and thus live out) hefty chunks of what my mind seems to be convinced about. But I know this is what I will be clinging to in the massive year ahead: I trust Him, for all that has happened in the past. I trust Him, in all that is happening in the present. I trust Him, with all that will happen in the future. May my will abide with His and His will be done in and through me. Amen.

Against threadbare theology

There is a hiatus between the arena of the young theologian’s actual spiritual growth and what he already knows intellectually about this arena. (10)

Every theological idea which makes an impression upon you must be regarded as a challenge to your faith. Do not assume as a matter of course that you believe whatever impresses you theologically and enlightens you intellectually. (31)

A theological thought can breathe only in the atmosphere of dialogue with God. (34)

A person who pursues theological courses is spiritually sick unless he reads the Bible uncommonly often and makes the most of opportunities by which, in preaching and Bible classes, that cornerstone is made visible. (40)

— From A Little Exercise for Young Theologians by Helmut Thielicke, translated by Charles L. Taylor (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, 1962)

One more paper (and 300 or so pages of a counselling textbook) before this semester can draw to a close. One more week before a flying leap eastwards. One more month before the third season of getting Sherlocked. One more semester before I’m meant to emerge from what Thielicke terms “spiritual puberty”.

These are hopeful projections. Outcomes ultimately unknowable right now.

One more.

Want more. Of the one who lets himself be known. Of you, Lord Jesus.